Can religion and violence be separated, even in a theoretical sense? Let me first say that I’m afraid I can’t add anything to the discussion that will comfort those whose lives have been tragically affected by violence perpetrated in the name of faith. This is an extremely difficult and painful question: for individuals, for ethnic groups, for nations and for our world. I’d like to try to address the question as tastefully, sensitively, and as delicately as I can, and I’d encourage your feedback and criticism in the comments section. And don’t take any of this too seriously. People have been unsuccessfully trying to come to grips with this question for thousands of years. I can only hope to be at least as unsuccessful as some of the better attempts.
Religious violence touches people directly when people are killed and maimed in the name of faith. Then there are those who have had their freedom restricted simply by the threat of violence: gays, women, those of different faiths from the mainstream, political activists and so on who must take care what they say and how they live for fear of their wellbeing and safety. This, too, is religious violence.
Finally, I think talk about “religious violence” (and I’m especially thinking of current discourse in the West about Islamic society) actually legitimizes secular aggression against people, with secular motivations and secular goals. I don’t think religion has a monopoly on atrocities great or small, in number or in form. The agenda of the secular world can often manifest itself in bombed cities, displaced peoples, and oppression and violence against those “holding back progress” (or some variation thereof). Aggression is a universal human characteristic, deeply ingrained in our motivations, emotions, and instincts.
It’s hard to talk about solutions to any kind of violence without seeming callous. If we succeed in bringing violent deaths in society down from 15 per 100,000 people each year to, say, five per 100,000, it will be of great benefit for us all. But what if it’s my son or daughter, wife, or mother who belongs to that 1-in-20,000? A statistic brings little comfort for grief. Whether the loved ones in a persons life were killed because of religious motivations or not, does not bring that person back and everything that was loved about that person is irretrievably gone. This is terribly saddening.
Faith, sacred texts, and traditions can be there to encourage us if we are touched by aggression. If we try to find meaning in our grief, faith is often there to comfort us. Faith helps us order our chaotic lives. It helps us make sense of our suffering, among which is that caused by violence. When someone makes us suffer, the most painful and compelling question we ask is, “Why did this happen to me?” Religion attempts to provide a serious answer to this question.
What I think is hardest about this is the process of forgiving. Forgiveness doesn’t put an end to violence. It doesn’t explain why some claim Christ, Muhammad, or sacred tradition make people commit brutal acts towards one another. Yet maybe forgiveness can stop the victim from retaliating. Maybe the cycle can be broken a little and life can find a new opportunity to prosper.
Where you find life on this Earth, you find animals (and even plants) doing violence to each other. Where you find humans, you find some that are violently aggressive, and you find perhaps a greater number who can be pushed into aggression, maybe in a religious context. You might also find people who justify their aggression as a holy act, as many other human activities are justified by their holiness — the indulgent consumption the fatted calf, the irrationality of sexual passion, the pain of childbirth, and the bitterness of losing a dearly loved one. Religion helps us make sense of our behaviors and emotions; among them, violence and aggression.
I think this is why the relationship between religion and violence is so complicated. Faith has to address the deepest human concerns if it is to be taken seriously at all. Ancient sacred texts like the Hebrew Scriptures (amongst many others) have to make some sense of the atrocities their forefathers committed, likely swayed by that dark seed in all of us. The chaos of what we do to each other in the throes of rage and holy passion has to become part of an ordered cosmos which is overseen by a loving creator. It can’t be any other way. If faith can’t accommodate the weight of our sins, what good is it? For as a species, we have accumulated a long list of sins. I think this is why faith can advocate both for universal peace, and at times, for genocide.
Faith is, because we are. It is part of our story. Faith reflects who we are and what kind of answers we want from a cosmos that can be frightening and unfair. Faith is written out in human lives and violence occupies a big place in shaping who we are. Aggression and violence in faith tradition don’t legitimize those behaviors. This is an incorrect understanding of what faith is for and how it works. It helps us to live with peace and acceptance, to wash away our agony, and cleanse us when we sin.
You know the stories and tenants of faith. Now it’s your turn. What’s your story? What will you do to make our world more peaceful, more just, and more full of life? How will you help write the story of human beings and their faith?
Come to our next "Coffee Talk" at Boots Bakery at 10 a.m. on Feb. 2 where we'll discuss "Violence and the Sacred"